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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Hostile to love

Our epics and films celebrate love,so why this spate of ‘honour killings’?...

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
July 8, 2010 3:19:54 am

The recent spate of so-called honour killings in Haryana,western Uttar Pradesh and especially those in the heart of Delhi have come as a shock to most ordinary people who might be under the mistaken impression that our society has been moving towards becoming liberal and tolerant. While some of the killings have taken place in the background of heightened khap panchayat strictures on same-gotra and other marriages which ostensibly transgress rigid community norms (many of which are actually upheld today only in the breach), the concern here is with killings of couples who have married for love and across caste lines.

As far as khap panchayats are concerned,their behaviour is most likely a response to the heightened competition of gotras (or locally ranked clans) for scarce marriageable women,with each gotra trying to protect its pool of women and maintain its ascendancy in the local ranking system. Local rankings have been upset due to changes in the economy with land no longer being the only source of power and status,and with education and government employment becoming more attractive to parents seeking suitable grooms for their scarce daughters. When old equations are challenged,and more so across caste lines,self-styled representatives of society such as khaps,whose power is now actually peaking,tend to take up cudgels to preserve the old order.

While khap panchayat activism can significantly be attributed to the above underlying causes of changes in political economy conjoined with abysmal sex ratios,the violence of families towards their own kin and the people they choose to marry needs a separate explanation. Such violence against women and against young couples while being truly reprehensible may have other long-term consequences,which if effective would set back women’s progress by several decades. Already,there is a demand to lower the age at marriage of girls to 15 and of boys to 17 — this to prevent the young from falling in love and choosing their own spouses. The youth,according to the proponents of this change,would then not be in a position to dishonour the family name. This demand follows on the heels of the well-publicised demand to amend the marriage law to ban same gotra marriages. It is tragic that our reactions in 2010 seem to be more illiberal and retrogressive than they were four-five decades earlier. Then,marriage law was amended to make it as accommodating and liberal as possible and the Special Marriage Act supported those couples who chose to marry outside of caste and religion or against the wishes of their families.

But why this violence against “love marriages”? And that too often perpetrated by other young men who may have been in the same place themselves. We have to ask what such choice threatens. Apart from caste transgression — as marriage breaks down caste exclusivity,and so-called family honour which continues to ride on women’s shoulders and bodies — what does it threaten?

Our legends and epics are about romantic love,as are our hugely popular Bollywood movies and there is little doubt that every person wishes to experience romantic love. Then why this lack of tolerance towards those who actually do fall in love and wish to get married? Eloping is only the means,not the end they seek. If the respectable end is holy matrimony and all couples killed appear to have married,then where is the threat to the social order? Indeed,many parents today,across class,are happy if their children choose their own “appropriate” spouses — relieving them of the burdensome task of successful matchmaking or the responsibility for failed marriages.

My view is that love marriages threaten not the respectability of family but pose a different danger. In an interesting paper titled ‘What’s love got to do with it? Parental involvement and spouse choice in urban India’,a University of Chicago student,Divya Mathur,shows that parents of young men in Mumbai tended to choose brides who would look after them,the parents. They matched characteristics suitable more to this need than to the needs or characteristics of their sons. So this is what the parents are losing out when their children marry on their own — control over the daughter-in-law and,most likely,over the son. In an era when life-spans are getting longer and state organised old-age support remains non-existent,losing power and control over one’s children is a major issue. It may be a fact that even children duly married by their parents may not be supportive in the latter’s old age but it is equally true that the hold is greater when ties have been established and nurtured through the agency of parents.

We have to factor in the macro changes sweeping Indian society — the family in India is undergoing rapid transition; so are gender equations and expectations of conjugality. In north India,there has been a shift from an overemphasis on agnatic (father-son,mother-son,brother-brother) bonds to somewhat greater leeway being given to the conjugal bond. At least now wives are allowed to sleep with their husbands rather than having to sleep with their mothers-in-law or sisters-in-law while their husbands slept with fathers or brothers and sometimes even with mothers who jealously guarded sons from becoming too attached to their wives. This shift has strengthened the conjugal bond and the nuclear family and redrawn intergenerational equations where parents now have less control over their grown progeny. In this,we may have half a sociological explanation to the opposition to “love marriages” of all sorts. The other half may lie in psychology’s domain — understanding love and violence as two opposite sides of the same coin.

The writer teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology,Delhi

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